Book Review: Ghost Maven by Tony Lee Moral

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Ghost Maven is a Young Adult novel that tells the story of Alice Parker, a 16 year-old girl who falls for a boy who no one can recall seeing. It is an unconventional love story, heavy in magical realism.

Alice moves to Pacific Grove with her father and younger sister not long after their mother dies. Now living next to the ocean Alice takes kayaking classes in the bay to help her address her fear of water. She capsizes and is convinced she is about to drown when she is rescued by a young man, Henry Raphael. He delivers her safely to the beach – but no one else sees him. She wants to find him, and begins her search for him, when he appears before her again. Against all rules and warnings, their romance begins.

Moral has a great story, with twists and turns that keep the reader turning the pages. It is part love story, part thriller – hardly surprising given Moral’s previous work. The magical realism is a new diversion, which feels tightly stretched in places. The notion of a fourth plane, and ghosts residing in a kind of purgatory isn’t a new idea, but Alice’s role in it perhaps is. It’s clever.

The story overall was enjoyable – well-developed, with good pace and a gripping resolution. The devil is in the detail, with some very clunky passages, neither moving character or plot forward. Also occasional switches in to other viewpoints, fleeting, but jolting. Young Adult fiction is not my bag, so perhaps the audience will be more forgiving.

What puzzled me, and grated at times, was the mysterious Henry Raphael. No one sees him at the beginning. Yet later in the novel, he conveniently takes form, and fights mere mortals. Perhaps this is what happens in magical realism, but it seemed convenient and divisive. Actually, I thought Moral had the dated quality of Henry captured well, in his voice, his style. It was a good contrast to the modern Alice (and her friends). Moral’s dialogue and ability to convey different voices is good; with the exception of the swash-buckling crew, who seemed caricature, pirate-like, who made me want to laugh, rather than appear as a frightening bunch of marauding ghosts. Less is more, at times.

The devil in the detail of the Evening Tide, Henry’s boat, bugged me. Perhaps this is because I’m a seasoned sailor. But how big was this vessel? I see from the cover that it wasn’t the small dinghy I’d imagined. One that could be sailed single-handed (er, no way), or one that needed the ghost crew to manage her? A boat isn’t steered by a rudder (that’s under the water), but a tiller… And it doesn’t then become a wheel. Also, tides don’t move, the body of water, the sea does. The pull of the tide drives the movement. These are the details that frustrated me – and detracted from this compelling story – and I was left feeling that the editing process let Moral down. After so much research, walking the paths around the bay, and conjuring a protagonist, ghosts and a floating island, the story deserved better.

I was given an advance copy in PDF in return for an honest review.

 

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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PenguinRandomHouse describe Eligible as a ‘modern retelling’ of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This much is true. The plot flows in the same way, the character names are familiar, and the setting is undeniably contemporary. The effect is not the same.

From PenguinRandomHouse:

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

Eligible has all the elements of Pride and Prejudice, yet it feels remote from it. At times I was amused by it, and at others frustrated. Unsurprisingly Sittenfeld has used the same character list, with some working better than others. Darcy’s aloofness is well-drawn, as is Lizzy’s feistiness, and, Jane’s niceness. Mr Benett is a convincing modern interpretation, with turns of phrase that mimic Austen’s pen. Mrs Benett is dramatic and sullen, with Sittenfeld handing her most of the elements of prejudice in her rewriting of the tale. The other Benett sisters are beyond the silliness of Austen’s – and are quite vulgar. Sittenfeld’s update includes a harshness of tone, a level of insults and bad manners that had no place in Austen’s classic. This undermines the ‘scandal’ that becomes a turning point in the original (where Darcy intervenes), because it doesn’t seem so out of place in the person (Lydia), and of the time. Unconvincing. Overall, the tone of Eligible felt wrong, inappropriate almost. Eligible feels like a parody of the literary classic, not merely a modern retelling.

What worked well was the switch of modern themes. Materialism of modern America versus the snobbery of Regency England. Society balls were swapped for BBQs. Strolls were replaced by jogging. Letters for text and email. Since marriage is no longer the determinant of a successful modern woman, Sittenfeld had to devise something else – she chose the ever-louder ticking biological clock as a motivator for a lasting relationship. However, this was not entirely convincing given the use of artificial insemination using donor sperm – not only an update, but a crucial plot point.

Here then is perhaps the fundamental flaw of Eligible. There was not really much at risk for any of the characters. Jane could have happily carried on without Bingley, and the feisty, successful, and independent Lizzy, the same without Darcy. This is a reality of modern life.

I chose this book because of the connection to my 2016 Reading Challenge. Pride and Prejudice was my ‘book read before’, and the coincidence of Eligible being the ‘book published in 2016’ was too tempting. At times, it was close to becoming another of the challenges, to read a book previously abandoned. Proceed with caution. Without the ghost of literary classics past, on its own Eligible is a fluffy and light read. Uncompromising ChickLit.

This book was chosen as part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book published in the year (2016).

Book Review: Mosquito, by Roma Tearne

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Mosquito is a remarkable love story, set in Tearne’s native Sri Lanka. Theo Samarajeeva is a widower and writer, returned to his home land to finish his latest work. He takes a neighbourhood girl under his wing, Nulani Mendis, who brings light into his world. He sees her talent as an artist, and encourages to paint. He commissions her to paint his portrait, and in the process becomes more enchanted by her. In war-torn Sri Lanka their love story is not straightforward, with the tension of the Tamil-Singhalese conflict running throughout.

Mosquito is an enticing book. Tearne does not shy away from the brutalities of civil war, nor this unconventional love story. Nulani is 17, and Theo 47. It is almost uncomfortable, although this is no Lolita. Somehow it is the manservant Sugi who makes it seem like the relationship is defined in the stars. Sri Lanka is full of curious customs and beliefs that stand at odds with western culture. Sugi makes you believe it simply is the way that it must be. This exploration of cultural difference is a constant theme running throughout the book. Whether this is literal (of place), of age or of status.

In parallel to the unfolding relationship between Theo and Nulani, are other sub-plots. Nulani’s childhood friend, Vikram, being fed a diet of hate and vengeance as a terrorist recruit. Theo’s friends, Rohan and Guilia, who Theo entrusts with Nulani’s safety in the event of the war closing in, which it inevitably does. Rohan and Guilia escape to Italy, their marriage crumbling in the upheaval. Tearne’s writing contrasts with the brutality of these intertwined stories. Tearne paints with her words, and creates vivid, rich scenes. She conjures the vastness of the shoreline and the ocean, the isolation of being imprisoned, and the tragedy of the young Tamil footsoldiers groomed into suicide missions. She never seems to lose a thread, as her characters experience recurring loss and challenges. No one has it easy in Mosquito, and yet it is a book about hope, survival and war.

It is a book that has haunted me, the story’s fingers feeling their way under my skin and through to my psyche. I am intrigued, because I know that I should be uncomfortable, disapproving of the relationship of Theo and Nulani, for all the power imbalances. Yet Tearne allows those reactions to happen, and challenges them in her narration. A beguiling book, and I appreciate having to work to understand it, and myself in relation to it. If that’s a reading experience you enjoy, then read it you must. The exquisite writing itself reason enough to pick up Mosquito.
Mosquito was chosen for my Reading Challenge 2016 as a book that I own but have never read 

Book Review: Ease, by Patrick Gale

According to the publisher’s information, Ease is “a novel about downsizing from a life of ease and upgrading to one of sleaze.” It is an attention grabbing description, but doesn’t do the story justice, and oversimplifies my experience of it.

Ease tells the story of Domina Tey, a successful playwright, living in abundance in Bristol (Clifton to be precise), but she isn’t happy. She’s living in the grey zone, stagnating in her life and creativity. She leaves her husband, temporarily, for an escape in London. In search of a more gritty, anonymous existence. She rents a bedsit in a Bayswater, and the story evolves around the characters she meets.

Ease was written in 1985, Gales second novel. Last year I read A Place Called Winter (and am eagerly awaiting the next), and loved it (reviewed here). I enjoyed Ease hugely, but what I also appreciated is his development as a writer. Gale is a superb observer of people, right up at the top, and in Ease, this is no different. The writing reflects his apprenticeship, which is more clunky (you notice it getting in the way at times, a bit overwritten), and also the plot devices. There are a number of coincidences that happen that need to get the plot moving on. I wonder if he’d be satisfied with that now.

Early in his novel writing career, Gale nails the characterisation. I didn’t quite like the rather spoilt Domina Tey, yet I was intrigued what happened to her. Domina was influenced by two dominant female characters – her mother and her agent, both imposing, perhaps a little flatly described, but they served a purpose to illuminate Domina more. The characters in the Bayswater residence added colour, humour and dimension to Ease. Gale shows his turn for comedy, often in testing circumstances in his characters. I rather wished I could have met Thierry, the gay, ‘sauna’ visiting waiter. I can still picture the scene when he is fleeing after a nighttime tryst.

So, the characters are well crafted, the premise of the novel is a good one. There is a definite story, with a clever twist (no plot spoilers here), but there is something not resolved for this reader. What has Domina Tey learned in her adventures, her interferences? This I am baffled about. I read that Gale based this on his own life experiences, of being in a sleazy flat, but not of the protagonist. I think I would have liked something more in the ending – not that I’m unhappy with the ending per se, just Domina’s development path in it.

I would certainly recommend Ease – it’s not as tightly written as some of his more recent works, but it is still a highly engaging and  enjoyable read.

I was given an advance electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an objective  and honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

characterisation. I didn’t quite like the rather spoilt Domina Tey, yet I was intrigued what happened to her. Domina was influenced by two dominant female characters – her mother and her agent, both imposing, perhaps a little flatly described, but they served a purpose to illuminate Domina more. The characters in the Bayswater residence added colour, humour and dimension to Ease. Gale shows his turn for comedy, often in testing circumstances in his characters. I rather wished I could have met Thierry, the gay, ‘sauna’ visiting waiter. I can still picture the scene when he is fleeing after a nighttime tryst.

So, the characters are well crafted, the premise of the novel is a good one. There is a definite story, with a clever twist (no plot spoilers here), but there is something not resolved for this reader. What has Domina Tey learned in her adventures, her interferences? This I am baffled about. I read that Gale based this on his own life experiences, of being in a sleazy flat, but not of the protagonist. I think I would have liked something more in the ending – not that I’m unhappy with the ending per se, just Domina’s development path in it.

I would certainly recommend this book – it’s not as tight as some of his more recent works, but it is still a highly engaging, enjoyable read.

I was given an advance electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an objective and honest review.

Book Review: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translation by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky)

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What is there to say about War and Peace that hasn’t been written? It is known as one of the great Russian novels, and yet it isn’t really a novel. Even Tolstoy acknowledged that it is neither a novel, or a history (or an epic poem). It sits on its own, quite unlike any book I’ve read before. There is a fabulous love story, woven between Tolstoy’s philosophising and essays about war, history and the greatness (or otherwise) of Napoleon.

War and Peace, depicts Russia’s war with Napoleon and its effects on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. He creates some of the most vital and involving characters in literature as he follows the rise and fall of families in St Petersburg and Moscow who are linked by their personal and political relationships. His heroes are the thoughtful yet impulsive Pierre Bezukhov, his ambitious friend, Prince Andrei, and the woman who becomes indispensable to both of them, the enchanting Natasha Rostov.

It is a daunting book – of course it is. It was to me, anyway, which is what the Reading Challenge digs away at. However, very soon into it, it wasn’t such a tower of a book. Some said the number (and names) of the characters was overwhelming. Maybe initially, but not distractingly so. War and Peace makes you want to work hard as a reader, as the rewards are great. Tolstoy is an astonishingly good observer of people, writing War and Peace before Freud was out of short trousers. His understanding of motivation, development makes for rounded characters that need to discover something before they can be who they need to be. None more evident than in Pierre Bezukhovf and Natasha Rostov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who is a kind of bridge between them.

The insights to Russian nobility is intriguing, and the reader is thrown into the heart of society in the opening chapter, at a party of Anna Pavlovna, and the heart of what seems to matter. The language of the court was French, which the translation maintains, to great effect.

Tolstoy writes from all perspectives, as the reader moves from character to character, right in their mind and thoughts. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Tolstoy is the narrator and owner. War and Peace ebbs and flows between the story and his narratives, with these rambling reflective views on war and power and history, and… At times they are repetitive, and dry. None more so than the epilogue. It is the writing of the story that Tolstoy’s writing comes to life. This is the artist engaging us with history, and it is like a light shining on the words. Some passages are achingly tender, like Prince Andrei believing he is dying on the battlefield.

War and Peace does not shy away from the ravages of war, and successfully portrays the impact on the ordinary Russian folk. The peasants, the infantrymen, and those below the Russian aristocracy. Tolstoy’s detail is astonishing – reflecting the five years he spend on his epic. It is the contrast between war and peace, and the change that it has on Pierre and Natalie that makes the story.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy, and devour War and Peace. I hadn’t expected to consider reading it again. I imagine the rewards will be rich. It is a keeper of a book.

War & Peace was part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book that intimidates you

Oh what a world we live in…

There is indeed an ugly mood at the moment. Information comes fast in thick torrents of bubbling, chattering, and endless streams. Oh what a world we live in. There is no chance to breathe, at times, and you feel like you’re drowning. We are exposed to more and more extremes, and these filter down into our consciousness, and into our collective behaviour. In one week we lament the death of the inspirational Muhammad Ali; the next it seems we have forgotten anything he ever said.

Oh what a world we live in. We are collectively shocked by the execution, on one of our streets, of Jo Cox, in a brutal attack by a man fuelled by hatred. Yet hatred has become currency for a xenophobic outbreak not seen in many years. It troubles me as much as it shames me. No one is surprised that English fans are again at the centre of violence in France. Neither is anyone shocked. No, we are ashamed. We are ashamed of their taunts, their idiocy.

They are not my Britain.

My Britain is neither those that preach hate and intolerance of others, and incite it in others. UKIP’s latest poster for the Brexit campaign is utterly deplorable. It is about time UKIP’s leader is called for his behaviour, rather than being dismissed as a comic buffoon. That said, there has been a lack of dignity that has run through both campaigns in the EU Referendum. I watched one debate – no one appealed to me. No wonder people in this plebiscite are confused. Has it really taken the murder of Jo Cox to stop them all in their tracks? The media that stokes them included.

The pathways of tolerance, acceptance, of kindness even seem to be lost to us. It is up to us to clear the way.  Oh what a world we live in. No wonder the internet is filled with pictures of kittens.

I’m reminded of Rufus Wainwright’s beautiful song, the running line through my thoughts. Lest we forget.

Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline?

“Life is Beautiful”

Wellbeing post-surgery

I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Initially it was patience – thanks to the unnamed Doctor in Treliske who told me I needed to learn to be patient; it stopped me being frustrated and angry. I also think there’s a simple appreciation that comes from surviving and recovering. 100 years ago, I would have been in the most excruciating, ongoing pain, which would have driven me insane, if the trauma hadn’t killed me in the first place. The cold I had a few weeks ago would have surely infected the lung, and who knows what would have happened. Modern medicine, our NHS is incredible. I am incredibly grateful for both – even if it was, initially at least, so frustrating.

Drug-fog dulled my mind for a goodly while. However, long after I stopped taking the pain relief, I felt very ‘shut down’. Everything slowed – my body, my mind, my expectations. I became a fan of the afternoon nap! I spent a lot of time staring in to space, sometimes knitting, mostly with Radio 6Music for company. I didn’t read as much as I thought I might; I simply didn’t have the space for it. Although goodness knows what was in that head space. Brain fog. As for writing. I wasn’t interested; too much effort to join thoughts up.

It is in the last few weeks, with the onset of Physio and being able to do more that things have shifted again. One of the unexpected benefits of this pneumothorax recovery, is that Pete and I have been ‘forced’ to remain at home. We’d usually be off at this time of year, sailing. However, being at home has been a delight. Cornwall is glorious this time of year. People flock into Cornwall at this time of year (and will do for the next three months) because it is gorgeous, The sun is warm, the gardens at their best – even the hedgerows are a sight to behold. The photo above is our garden! Pete has taken part in a couple of sailing events that he wouldn’t have done ordinarily. We have made new friends, and joined in with social activities more. It has caused me to question why we flee at this time of year, when being here is such a treat. Are we entering a new chapter? What does that mean for our Whinchat?  Our sailing adventures. I’m allowed to sail now, but not in anything lively – and it’s untested. I ironed six shirts the other day, and that aggravated my recovering shoulder muscles. Ironing, however, is easy to avoid!

We’re about to set off on a different adventure, because we’re not away sailing. We’re travelling through France (fingers crossed there’s fuel, and that we avoid anything to do with football), in the car that Pete built. Time sitting alongside each other will provide ample opportunity for rambling discussions. Who knows where this trip will take us, but it feels so positive and exciting to be going.